Reading: Isaiah 49:1-7
I don’t normally but I thought that today I would use the lectionary readings. I really enjoyed this passage from Isaiah and discovering more of the heart of God – because that is what I think we hear here.
Isaiah 49:1-7 is one of four “Servant Songs” in Isaiah. There are four passages that refer to God’s servant. The one we know best is Isaiah 53: the Suffering Servant. But the big question is: Who is this servant?
Isaiah 49:3 You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will display my splendour.
From that verse, who would you think was the servant? Maybe the nation of Israel.
But Christians believe Isaiah is referring to Jesus. The New Testament writers quote from these servant songs, especially from Isaiah 53, and say, ‘This is Jesus.”
Isaiah 49:5 And now the Lord says – He who formed me in the womb to be His servant…
From that we might conclude that Isaiah himself was the servant. It is all in the first person. “Before I was born… He called me.” Or is it someone else?
I am going to list 8 clues – 8 things this passage says about the servant. At the end I am going to ask you who the servant is.
It starts with a call for the island and the distant nations to listen. New Zealanders, living in the islands amongst the furthest from Israel, should sit up and listen. There is a reason why this is addressed to the islands and the distant lands. We will come to that soon. But what are we to listen to?
1. The Servant’s Calling and Preparation
One of the main characteristics of Hebrew poetry is parallelism which basically means saying the same thing twice, or saying that same thing in two different ways. There is lots of parallelism in this passage.
Isaiah 49:1 …before I was born the Lord called me;
From my birth He has made mention of my name
See how that says the same thing twice. But what does it say? God had chosen this person to be His servant and to have a particular role before he was even born.
Isn’t that a remarkable thing? God said the same thing to Jeremiah.
Jeremiah 1:5 “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
before you were born I set you apart;
I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.”
Jesus was chosen and commissioned before His birth. John the Baptist was. And this servant was. God’s hand and His calling were upon him from before he was born.
Then there is another example of parallelism where he says twice that he was prepared or refined or equipped by God and, for a time, hidden. He made my mouth a like a sharpened sword, in the shadow of His hand He hid me. Then, exactly the same thing again using different images: He made me into a polished arrow and concealed me in His quiver.
Before this servant was revealed there was a time of preparation during which he was made ready for his task. God was at work in his life, preparing Him. A sharpened sword and a polished arrow suggest careful preparation so that, when he was revealed – when he was taken from the quiver – he would be effective.
Think of Moses: 80 years living in the home of Pharaoh and then in the desert shepherding sheep; 80 years of God’s working in his life before he was called to his mission of leading his people out of Egypt.
2. The Servant’s Nature
Isaiah 49:3 He said to me, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will display my splendour.”
I am not sure that “nature” is the best word, but I couldn’t think of a better one. God was going to reveal His splendour through this servant. People would see the majesty and the wonder of God in this person. His words, his lifestyle, his character, his values, his decisions would display the character of God. Who could this be?
3. The Servant’s Master
Isaiah 1:4a But I said, “I have laboured in vain;
I have spent my strength for nothing at all…
He twice says that he has failed. But notice that he then twice says that it is God who rewards.
Isaiah 1:4b Yet what is due me is in the Lord’s hand,
and my reward is with my God.”
There may seem to be no results. God’s servants may not appear successful by worldly standards – but God measures success differently.
You may know the story of the concert pianist who received a rapturous standing ovation. He left the stage and refused to go back and play another piece. When asked why when the audience was so enthusiastic, he answered that there was one man in the back corner still sitting. “But that is only one man”, the stage manager said to him. “Yes, but he is my piano teacher.”
The servant plays for an audience of one. No matter what the world says, He looks to God for his reward.
Who could this be? Is that true of Jesus? Of Isaiah? No apparent success but accountable only to God?
4. The Servant’s Mission
Next we have a new announcement from God. Everything has been past tense until now: He chose me; He prepared me; I failed. But now there is a new announcement: Now the Lord says…
What is this new announcement? We don’t find out immediately because Isaiah reflects again on who God is: He is the One who formed me in the womb; formed me to be His servant.
He reflects on His mission. My role as His servant was to bring Jacob back to Him; to gather Israel to Himself. The Bible is the history of God’s servants calling people back to God. All of the prophets called people back to God. Before them, the few godly kings called people back to God. Before them the judges called people back to God when they disobeyed. John the Baptist called people back to God. “Repent for the Kingdom of God is near.” This is the constant mission of God’s people: calling people back to God.
5. The Servants’ Strength
Isaiah says that the servant is honoured in God’s eyes and that God has been his strength. The servant does not do all this because he is particularly capable or skilled. He does it because God honours him and God is his strength.
6. The Servants Mission Field
This is new announcement and it is astounding. God says that just bringing Israel and Jacob (in other words the people of Israel) back to Him is not big enough. This servant is to be a light to the Gentiles as well. The Jews saw themselves as exclusively the chosen people but God’s vision is much bigger than that. God’s mission extends to the ends of the earth. It says here: “I have made you a light to the Gentiles that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.” God so loved the world. He wants all people to be saved. God’s mission is to the Jews and to the Gentiles. New Zealanders, that is why the chapter started by calling the islands and the distant nations to listen. This is good news for the whole world.
This is the heart of God: that all the world might be saved.
7. The Servant’s Rejection
Almost in passing, Isaiah describes the servant as “him who was rejected and abhorred by the nations; the servants of rulers.” The servant’s mission doesn’t make him popular. Calling people back to God will mean that he is rejected and hated. Again, we can point to plenty of examples of that. The prophets were, by-and-large rejected. Many were killed.
8. The Servant’s Exaltation
See how the tables are turned in v.7. The servant is rejected. He is the servant of rulers. But God says…
Isaiah 49:7 “Kings will see you and stand up,
princes will see and bow down,
because of the Lord, who is faithful,
the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.”
Kings and princes will bow before the servant. Notice that this is something that God brings about. These things happen because the Lord is faithful. The One who chose him for this mission is faithful.
OK, who is the servant?
Who thinks it is referring to Jesus?
He was chosen before His birth. For 30 years he was hidden before His public ministry began. During that time he was learning, asking questions, listening, observing, being tested.
Jesus displayed God’s splendour. Jesus is God revealed. He was full of grace and truth. Paul says:
Colossians 1:15, 19 The Son is the image of the invisible God…For God was pleased to have all His fullness dwell in Him…
Jesus faithfully served God and, from a worldly perspective, He failed. He died leaving only a few followers. Yet He sought only to please His Father even when it would cost Him His life. He died saying, “It is finished”. He had done everything asked of Him.
Jesus called people back to God: “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is near.”
Was His mission-field the whole world? In one sense, no. He focused His mission on Jews but there were also notable occasions when He broadened it to include Gentiles and He sent His disciple to all nations.
He was rejected.
He will be exalted. Kings and princes will bow before Jesus. I think of Philippians 2 that talks about Jesus being in very nature God but taking the nature of a servant, becoming obedient to death but then says, “Therefore God exalted Him to the highest place and gave Him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
This is an amazing prophecy of Jesus but, at another level, could it also refer to Isaiah himself? Yes. His mission field was primarily the southern kingdom, Judah and Jerusalem, but his writings have extended his mission to the ends of the earth.
Could it be Israel, the nation? Yes, every one of those things could have been true for Israel except that Israel wasn’t a faithful servant. Israel hasn’t always reflected God’s character or accepted the mission to bring people back to God or seen its mission as extending to the ends of the earth.
Could it be the church? Is the church being more faithful to its mission that Israel has been?
Could it be you? On yet another level, could it describe every servant of God?
John 15:16 “You did not choose me; I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit.”
Eph 1:4, 11-12 For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight… In him we were also chosen… in order that we… might be for the praise of his glory.
Matt 28:19-20 Go and make disciples of all nations… Surely I am with you always.
John 15:19-21 you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you… If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also…
Last question: Is it you?
- Are you allowing God to prepare you and refine you and train you for your ministry?
- Are you reflecting God’s splendour? Can people see God in you?
- Is God your Master? Are you concerned only with what He thinks?
- Is your mission to bring people back to God?
- Are you operating in the strength of God?
- Are you involved in God’s mission in the world?
- Have you experienced rejection? Jesus said “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.” (Mt 5:11)
- If those are true, then you can expect God to exalt you. “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
As we start 2014, is God calling you to re-focus on any one of those aspects of being His servant?